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History Day: 10 years of celebrating History collections

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Written by
Mark Piggott

History Day brings together people and collections. It’s the perfect opportunity to catch up with the latest collection-based projects and meet with like-minded people. 2024 is the 10th anniversary of History Day and in this blog post, we have invited colleagues to reflect on the event.

History Day is an invaluable outreach event to connect new researchers to our collections
History Day is an invaluable outreach event to connect new researchers to our collections

"Looking back, I don’t think people quite knew what to expect!"

Michael Little from The National Archives Library explains how the event came out of the History Research Libraries Committee, a group “for librarians … to meet and discuss what work they are doing and matters that are important to them”. History Day was proposed as a way “for … libraries to present what they do to a wider audience”. 

The first event was held in Senate House in March 2014 as History Libraries and Research open day, soon shortened to History Day. Collections covered at the event aren’t just library collections; they also encompass archives, museums, galleries, digital and community collections.

Michael writes about the 2014 event:

“Looking back, I don’t think people quite knew what to expect. It was a step in the dark and there was a sense of anticipation, even slight anxiety as to how the event would unfold. We weren’t sure how it would go, what the response would be, how many people would turn up, what people would ask us. 

“As it turned out, we were pleasantly surprised. There was a good turnout and many of those who attended seemed genuinely interested in the work we were all doing in our respective organisations and collectively. There were lots of questions about what was in our holdings, how to conduct research, how to proceed with looking into the collections in more depth.”

Michael reflects on the benefits of the interactions at History Day for researchers of all kinds and collections professionals: 

“.. [it] has included helping novice researchers and more experienced ones where the trail has long since gone cold. In some cases, it’s not necessarily about people getting answers to specific questions. Sometimes it’s about people getting a sense of what is available and how to conduct research and just talking to library professionals can go some way in helping to make this task easier. 

“The event has given those us who have a stand a chance to meet new colleagues and find out more about the work of other libraries and collections as well.”

Collections staff talk to a visitor at the second event in January 2015
Collections staff talk to a visitor at one of the first History Day events

"An invaluable outreach event to connect new researchers to our collections"

Isabelle Chevallot from the Guildhall Library also highlights the knowledge-sharing opportunity for both the staff on the stands and the attendees:

“I have represented Guildhall Library at History Day from the beginning. It was an extremely interesting and useful event to attend early in my career as a historical librarian. Previously I had worked in a newspaper library, so this was a new area for me. As a result of History Day, I have discovered new collections/institutions I had never heard of before from up and down the country, reflecting the wealth of historical information available to researchers. History Day is an invaluable outreach event to connect new researchers to our collections. It has also allowed me to network with other library and archive professionals.

“There was flexibility during Covid when History Day went online, but it was wonderful to be back in person last year and catch up with everyone properly. Senate House Library is a great central venue for the event and the staff are friendly and helpful. I have enjoyed linking our collections to History Day themes. This has encouraged me to think about aspects of our collections I might not have thought about before. 

“The highlight for me was participating in a panel discussion about responses to historic public health crises. It was a fascinating discussion. It was great to hear from other panellists about their collections and to showcase Guildhall Library’s Bills of Mortality collection.”

"History Day is now a fixed staple in our yearly Archives and Special Collections outreach and public engagement activities " 

Adam Ray and colleagues from King’s College London Libraries & Collections share their reflections on the event and their involvement over the last 10 years:

Staff at the King’s College London History Day stand
Staff at the King’s College London History Day stand

“We at King’s College London Libraries & Collections have been enthusiastic supporters of History Day since its first inception, which we cannot quite believe is 10 years ago now. We have loved watching it grow up. 

“History Day is now a fixed staple in our yearly Archives and Special Collections outreach and public engagement activities and we particularly relish using it as a chance for colleagues from across the teams to gain unique experience in promoting and sharing information about Archives and Special Collections holdings.

“Whilst some over the years have gone into the day with understandable trepidation, they always come out of their time in the public eye energised and proud of the work they have done. The interaction with researchers raises our combined confidence in the services we provide and is invaluable to us. Every year we afterwards reflect on how grateful we are for those unique opportunities which History Day provides.

“This feeling comes about because from the beginning, we have always viewed History Day as a chance to push ourselves and try new ways to fulfil our public engagement mission. Over the years, King’s contributions have been as various as written blogposts diving deep into the people who made history and the lives they touched along the way, to the showcasing of our online exhibitions, which interrogate our collections from current and innovative perspectives.

“We have also provided live and live-streamed sessions demonstrating how to access our collections and have produced dedicated History Day video material. All this being rounded off of course by our stall which we look forward to holding again in 2024.

“Our full suite of offerings over the years is located on the History Collections website. Here’s to the next decade and the wish that History Day itself, ironically perhaps, never becomes history!”

History Day is co-hosted by Senate House Library and the Institute of Historical Research. It was conceived by Jordan Landes, who co-organised the event from 2014 – 2018, and co-organised by Kate Wilcox (2014 – present) and Argula Rublack (2019 – present). The event is supported by people across the School of Advanced Study and University of London.

What makes the event is all the amazing collections staff and volunteers who take the time to come together, whether in person or online, to celebrate their collections, and the researchers who bring such eclectic questions and enthusiasm.

Save the date for the 10th anniversary History Day 2024 on 5 November. You can sign up for the mailing list to hear when bookings open or find out how to represent your organisation.

Explore further and hear from other participating organisations in this video and on YouTube: Network with fellow history enthusiasts.

Network with fellow history enthusiasts!